Army data reveal lack of black leadership in key commands
WASHINGTON — Command of the Army's combat battalions and brigades — its pipeline to top leadership — is virtually devoid of black officers, according to interviews, documents and data obtained by USA Today.
The lack of black officers who lead infantry, armor and field artillery battalions and brigades — there are no black colonels at the brigade level this year — threatens the Army's effectiveness, disconnects it from American society and deprives black officers of the principal route to top Army posts, according to officers and military sociologists. Fewer than 10 percent of the active-duty Army's officers are black compared with 18 percent of its enlisted men, according to the Army.
The problem is most acute in its main combat units: infantry, armor and artillery. In 2014, there was not a single black colonel among those 25 brigades, the Army's main fighting unit of about 4,000 soldiers. Brigades consist of three to four battalions of 800 to 1,000 soldiers led by lieutenant colonels. Just one of those 78 battalions is scheduled to be led by a black officer in 2015.
Leading combat units is an essential ticket to the Army's brass ring. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, commanded artillery units. His predecessor, Gen. Martin Dempsey, led armor units, and is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"The issue exists. The leadership is aware of it," says Brig. Gen. Ronald Lewis, the Army's chief of public affairs. Lewis is a helicopter pilot who has commanded at the battalion and brigade levels and is African-American. "The leadership does have an action plan in place. And it's complicated."
Among the complications: expanding the pool of minority candidates qualified to be officers, and helping them choose the right military jobs they'll need to climb the ranks, Lewis says.
To be sure, there are black officers who have attained four stars. Gen. Lloyd Austin, an infantry officer, leads Central Command, arguably the military's most critical combatant command as it oversees military operations in the Middle East. Another four-star officer, Gen. Vincent Brooks, leads U.S. Army Pacific, and Gen. Dennis Via runs Army Materiel Command, its logistics operation.
The concern, however, is for Army's seed bed for four-star officers — the combat commands from which two-thirds of its generals are grown. They're unlikely to produce a diverse officer corps if candidates remain mostly white.
"It certainly is a problem for several reasons," says Col. Irving Smith, director of sociology at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Smith is also an African-American infantry officer who has served in Afghanistan. "First we are a public institution. And as a public institution we certainly have more of a responsibility to our nation than a private company to reflect it. In order to maintain their trust and confidence, the people of America need to know that the Army is not only effective but representative of them."
Black officers at the top ranks of the brass show young minority officers what they can achieve. Their presence also signals to allies in emerging democracies like Afghanistan that inclusive leadership is important. Diverse leadership, research shows, is better able to solve complex problems such as those the Army confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smith said.
"It comes down to effectiveness," Smith said. "Diversity and equal opportunity are important, but most people don't point out that it makes the Army more effective."
The Army's — and the Pentagon's — main ground fighting force remains the Army's infantry, armor and artillery units, although aviation and engineering units are also considered combat arms. Many of their names have become familiar to the American public after more than a decade of war: The 101st Airborne Division, the 82nd Airborne Division the 10th Mountain Division.
They share a proud history of tough fights and multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. They also share a lack of black leaders. In all, eight of 10 of the Army's fighting divisions do not have a black battalion commander in their combat units.
(For now, they also lack women. The military plans to open combat roles to women in 2016.)
USA Today obtained the Army's list of battalion and brigade commanders. Several officers familiar with the personnel on them identified the black officers, which the Army refused to do. The paper considered officers in infantry, armor and field artillery — the three main combat-arms branches.
The results: In 2014, there is not a single black commander among its 25 brigades; there were three black commanders in its 80 battalion openings.
In 2015, there will be two black commanders of combat brigades; and one black commander among 78 battalions openings.
"It's command. If you don't command at the (lieutenant colonel) level, you're not going to command at (the colonel level)," says Army Col. Ron Clark, an African-American infantry officer who has commanded platoon, company, battalion and brigade level. "If you don't command at the (colonel) level, you're not going to be a general officer."
Capt. Grancis Santana, 33, knows about the long odds he faces as an artillery officer hoping to become a colonel.
He found few black officers in his specialty — about two of 20 when he was a lieutenant, and about three of 30 when he made captain.
"It's not a good feeling when you're one of the few," Santana said. "There was no discrimination; there are just not a lot of people like you."
A key reason is the paucity of black officers graduated by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, its ROTC programs and Officer Candidate School.
For instance, the newly minted officer classes of 2012 and 2013 in combat arms remained mostly white, according to data released by the Army. Of the 238 West Point graduates commissioned to be infantry officers in 2012, 199 were white; seven were black. At Officer Candidate School, which accepts qualified enlisted soldiers and graduates with four-year degrees, 66 received commissions as infantry officers — 55 were white, none was black. The figures remained nearly unchanged for 2013.
The downsizing of the Army is having a disproportional effect on African-American officers. From the pool of officers screened, almost 10 percent of eligible black majors are being dismissed from the Army compared with 5.6 percent of eligible white majors, USA Today reported in early August. The Army is cutting 550 majors and about 1,000 captains as the Army seeks to reduce its force to 490,000 soldiers by the end of 2015.
Two forces seem to reinforce the lack of black officers in combat command. For decades, young black men have tended to choose other fields, including logistics. With fewer role models and mentors in combat specialties, those fields have been seen as less welcoming to African-American officers.
Irving Smith remembers his parents being "heartbroken" that he chose infantry.
"African Americans have historically used the armed forces as a means of social mobility," says Smith, who joined the infantry, has risen to the rank of colonel and now is professor and director of sociology at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "That is certainly true for African Americans who have used the armed forces as a bridging opportunity (to new careers)."
Parents, pastors and coaches of young black men and women considering the Army often don't encourage them to join the combat specialties.
"Why would you go in the infantry?" Smith says of a common question. "Why would you want to run around in the woods and jump out of airplanes, things that have no connection to private businesses? Do transportation. Do logistics. That will provide you with transferable skills."
Developing marketable skills has been a key motivation for many African Americans, said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. That has often meant driving a truck, not a tank.
"There has been a trend among African Americans who do come into the military to gravitate to career fields that have transfer value — that pretty much excludes the combat arms," Segal said.
Clark, who now works at the Pentagon, wasn't encouraged initially to join the infantry. His father enlisted in 1964 and had an Army career in food service.
"He grew up in a small town in southern Louisiana in the middle of Jim Crow South," Clark says. "He was tired of having someone telling him where to sit on a bus, which water fountain to drink from and which bathroom he could use."
At age 11, the younger Clark remembers climbing on a tank when the family was stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 sealed the deal for him: He wanted to be infantryman.
"I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger in a tree," Clark says, "and my dad was not having it. He said, 'Nope, you are not going following my footsteps. I want you to go to college.'"
The compromise, after his father had him speak with an African-American brigade executive officer named Larry Ellis, was to enroll at West Point. Ellis went on to become a four-star general, and Clark graduated from the academy in 1988.
Clark and Irving remain exceptional cases.
The Army's response
The problem has attracted attention at the Army's highest ranks. In March, Army Secretary John McHugh and Odierno, the chief of staff, issued a directive aimed at diversifying the leadership of its combat units.
USA Today obtained a copy of the memo, which notes that the Army historically has drawn the majority of its generals from combat fields, specifically "Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery." For at least two decades, however, young minority officers have selected those fields in the numbers necessary to produce enough generals.
"African Americans have the most limited preference in combat arms, followed by Hispanic and Asian Pacific officers," the memo states. While black officers make up 12 percent of Army officers in all competitive specialties, they make up just 7 percent of the Army's infantry, armor and artillery officers. For junior officers, that figure is lower, 6 percent.
Minority groups need a "critical mass" of about 15 percent to feel they have a voice, Smith says.
The Army's plan calls for enhanced recruiting and mentoring for minority officers, particularly in combat fields, tracking their progress and encouraging mentorship.
Mentors needn't be of the same race, Clark and Lewis say. Lewis noted that several of his closest mentors were white officers, including retired Gen. Richard Cody, who retired as Army vice chief of staff. Cody advised him to spend time at the Army's National Training Center, in the California desert. It paid off, Lewis says.
"Everyone does not have to look like you," Lewis says. "You have to be able to receive mentorship, leadership. And you have to follow some of that. You may have to spend some time at a really hard place for a bit."
Byron Bagby, a retired African-American two-star artillery officer, applauds the Army for acknowledging the problem and taking steps to address it. He cautions progress will be slow. Bagby retired in 2011 from a top post with NATO in the Netherlands.
"We're not going to solve this tomorrow, or a year from now," Bagby says.
Smith has another suggestion for the Army. Ask an in-house expert: him.
The brass could also stop by his office for a chat, he says.
"I've never had anybody from the Department of the Army come to me. I'm a sociologist. I've studied these issues for six years."
Subscribe to our Stripes Pacific newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, cultural information, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!
Follow us on social media!